A WRESTLING MATCH
By JIM NICHOLS
Church policy arguments can be tedious. If you are a member of a church with a clear non-local hierarchy, you have an advantage of having leaders you may not even know make policy decisions for your local group. You may not agree with those decisions, but you do not have to lose much sleep trying to make the decisions yourself or within your local group; others make the decisions for you.
On the other hand, if you are a member of a more independent type church, policy debates can become difficult. Without any outside authority individuals, the church members have only their own insight using whatever resources they might have available. These resources might include historical precedents from within or outside the denomination, common sense, or, in many cases, certain interpretations of the Bible as they apply to the topic.
The preaching minister irritated some congregants in a specific manner, particularly because of a phrase he used every Sunday. As he was entering into the sermon, he would read the scripture on which he desired to preach. As the introduction to the passage, he would always say, “Listen for the word of God.” For example, he would say, “Today’s message is based on the first ten verses of the book of Ephesians. Listen for the word of God.”
What irritated some of the congregation was that he said “Listen for the word of God,” not “Listen to the word of God.” That one word change is subtle, but theologically important to that preacher. When asked what he was trying to do, he would explain that he believed God through the Bible communicated truths to readers or hearers that were filtered through their own faith and experiences. When asked, “Do you mean that different people might hear different things from God from the same passage?” He would answer, “Exactly.”
Although such thinking has some landmines, it makes good sense to me. I am sure that I am not alone when I note that many times I have read a passage from scripture that says something different now than it said when I read it at an earlier date. It may be an extremely familiar passage, yet now I hear (from God) something slightly or markedly new. If we believe that scripture is somehow “alive” and that one of the ways the Holy Spirit works is through the written words, why should we be surprised that God might give us different insights at different times?
To state this another way, for those of us who believe we should take the Bible seriously, we must be clear as to what scripture is and what scripture is not. This is a significant wrestling match. This means, for instance, that you and I as parallel followers of God may read the same passage of scripture and hear different messages. That may not be an attractive concept to us, but I believe it is reality. It also means that we may be in conflict about some topic because God has spoken in a varied way to each of us.
This is, of course, a consideration of how biblical interpretation occurs. We may not like to think that we are interpreting the Bible, but we certainly are. In whatever city you live, there is a variety of churches and each takes the Bible seriously. “The Bible—it means what it says and says what it means” may be a nice bumper sticker, but not helpful theology.
Admittedly, this kind of thinking sets the stage for some problems. If it is possible for well-meaning followers of God to hear God speaking in different ways, does that not cause confusion and lack of harmony? Indeed, it might. The alternative, however, is to gloss over different understandings of a specific scripture, or, at worse, draw a line as to whose interpretation is “correct.”
One approach that might be helpful is to, as much as is possible, take the “view from 30,000 feet” approach to scripture. That is, what is the “big picture” of this passage? More specifically, what is the message that God wants us to hear in this particular set of words? The words may be buried in aspects of another culture or time and use illustrations that are not part of our lives today, but there must be something from God there for us to hear. For instance, several times in the New Testament the writers use agricultural references or illustrations; frequently, there is mention of seeds, plants, trees, and harvesting. Such references are foreign to many 21st century readers, yet the messages of potential, cultivation, and growth are timeless.
The first three chapters of Ephesians take a helpful approach. There Paul spends many words telling his readers who they are rather than giving them instructions. They are people who have now had a mystery explained, who have been reconciled to God, who are redeemed, adopted, forgiven, and blessed. Only in chapter four does he begin to give practical information.
Perhaps if we read scripture looking for the announcement of who God insists we are rather than looking for instructions and commands, it would allow more room for the grace of the Holy Spirit in our church communities.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.